On a December night in 1995, 159 passengers and crewmembers died when American Airlines Flight 965 flew into the side of a mountain while in route to Cali, Colombia. A key factor in the tragedy: The pilots had lost situational awareness in the dark, unfamiliar terrain. They had no idea the plane was approaching a mountain until the ground proximity warning system sounded an alarm only seconds before impact. The accident was of the kind most common at the time CFIT, or controlled flight into terrain says Trey Arthur, research aerospace engineer in the Crew Systems and Aviation Operations Branch at NASA s Langley Research Center. In situations such as bad weather, fog, or nighttime flights, pilots would rely on airspeed, altitude, and other readings to get an accurate sense of location. Miscalculations and rapidly changing conditions could contribute to a fully functioning, in-control airplane flying into the ground. To improve aviation safety by enhancing pilots situational awareness even in poor visibility, NASA began exploring the possibilities of synthetic vision creating a graphical display of the outside terrain on a screen inside the cockpit. How do you display a mountain in the cockpit? You have to have a graphics-powered computer, a terrain database you can render, and an accurate navigation solution, says Arthur. In the mid-1990s, developing GPS technology offered a means for determining an aircraft s position in space with high accuracy, Arthur explains. As the necessary technologies to enable synthetic vision emerged, NASA turned to an industry partner to develop the terrain graphical engine and database for creating the virtual rendering of the outside environment.